by Bruce Harris.
Rob arrived back at the flat in a state of filth and fatigue. Hed spent an entire afternoon sorting out leaks in an old ladys under-sink pipes, her kitchen like an oven and her unsolicited revelations concerning the proclivities of her late husband increasingly intimate. Oh, he could be amorous enough at times, yes, but at others, oh dear me, he was hard pressed to raise a chuckle. Robs instincts for customer care told him he needed to raise a chuckle in response to that, dubious as it was, and he did, even though at the time he was jammed right under the sink, his head inches away from a pipe with God knows what gathered on it, sweat running down his face.
He let himself in and put down his bag. At times like this, he had mixed feelings about Karen no longer being here; the quietness and intimidating emptiness were the down side, but the upside was peace, relief from Karens endless trivial mini-crises, the edgy small scale melodrama of her life, things she had or hadnt been able to do or get hold of, things people had or hadnt supposedly said or thought about her. He wanted needed a shower, plain and simple, with no complicated distractions, and now he could strip and place himself under one in three simple minutes.
What came next, he thought, was food; the afternoon had given him a mountainous appetite. Food to be delivered, too, to save him going out. He toyed with pizza, but then decided on a stronger flavour; genuine Indian cuisine, it had to be, as in the Madras Palace version of it. Their stuff was good, hot and without unfortunate next morning consequences.
He half-dressed, relishing the cool cleanliness of his skin, and picked up his phone.
Id like to order something for delivery, please, he said.
A husky, breathy undertone answered him, sighs between the words.
You naughty - naughty boy. I think I know - well enough - what kind of delivery you have in mind.
I can give you your desire - bad bad boy, but youre going to have to tell me - however shy you may be about it - just exactly what it is you need.
Well, chicken tikka masala with pilau rice would do for starters.
Oh, God. Huskiness turned rapidly to indignation. Are you after this that bloody takeaway again? Weve told BT about this a hundred times. Its getting really embarrassing now. I went on for five minutes the other day before any voice came on, stuff about my knickers edging down anticipating my masters passion, and some woman says, I dont know what youre after love, all Im looking for is a lamb korma and a couple of chapatis.
As she spoke, the tone and the delivery came back to Rob with an unmistakable familiarity.
Is that you, Janice? Janice Murchison?
A long, long pause, a few clicks and tuts, and a resigned, philosophical voice returned.
Oh well, I suppose theres not much point in denying it. Im getting fed up with this lark anyway. Ive not placed who you are yet, love, but somethings very, very familiar.
Jason Robinson. Rob. I was the year below you in Curzon Road Comp. You gave me a birthday kiss on my fifteenth birthday, because you were leaving school the week after and you were feeling generous. Ive always remembered it.
Pause again. Now the voice had quietened, and the huskiness was different.
Jason Robinson. Gracious me. How are you, love? What do you do?
Plumber. He said it neutrally and quite confidently now, instead of mumbling it. I was after making some money, you know? Didnt fancy finishing up owing thousands of pounds and having some degree not worth the paper its printed on. Waste of time, for me anyway, not cut out for it, Janice. But Im doing alright, bit of cash in the pocket. What about you? he said, and as quickly wanted it unsaid, hurrying on to try for another meaning. You were knocking round with Eddie McCann, werent you, at school?
Yeah. For a good while. Too bloody long.
Oh. A heavily pregnant silence for a good ten seconds, Rob wondering what to ask, Janice wondering what to answer.
Are you still - er - said Rob softly.
Naw. Janice was scornful. Do you think Id be doing this if I was still married to Eddie? Hed rearrange my face for me, no worries. He tried that a few times anyway.
Yeah. Case, the lads at school used to call him. Though not to his face.
Yeah. Ed Case.
Janice laughed twice, a dry rasping noise, almost forced out of her.
Right. Right enough.
No-one could see what you saw in him.
Oh. Robbo. Janice sighed, thought about it, and decided why not? I thought he had hidden depths. I thought no-one can just be a big daft lad who cares about nothing but football, fighting and cars.
Did he have hidden depths?
No. He was.. is a big daft lad who cares about nothing but football, fighting and cars.
Another silence, but this time they both knew more was on its way.
I tried every which way, Robbo. Looking for finer feelings that werent there. Looking for some idea of a little adventure, in love and life; no way. Im just grateful I didnt marry the bastard. But he did one thing for me; hes one of the reasons why Im doing this. Foxy Lady Nitechat. And thanks for not asking, Rob, you always were a polite lad, I remember. I dont do it all the time, of course; I work in a shop during the day. And the moneys not much. Its just that I realised after Eddie that I didnt really know anything about men. I thought, if they really are all as simple as Eddie, then theres no point, Im just going to be bored, or scared, or both. The odd fling, one-nighter, therapeutic shag, that kind of thing. Thats more or less the way its been since Eddie anyway. But I needed to get to know them better and maybe improve my chances of not having to spend my life alone, with no family. And Foxy Ladys my way. I mean, you dont have to actually do anything to anyone, its all on the phone, they dont even know my name. But, God, you do get to know them.
Maybe the worst side of them.
Well, maybe. But when it comes to it, almost all guys are into stuff which is basically pretty harmless; strange, sometimes, hilarious, now and then, but not anything which hurts anyone, just some kink, usually out of childhood or teens or what people have told them. And you get extras; guilt, shame, embarrassment about letting on about what they really want, because it makes them vulnerable, I suppose. But now, when some girlfriend says, theyre all the same, I think, theyre not, lady, theyre not, believe me. I just think it. In case I have to explain how I know it.
The pause lengthened to seconds; they wondered if that was it without wanting it to be.
Anyway, thats me, Robbo, what about you? I had a bit of a thing about you, while Im confessing. It makes a change, me doing the confessing. You always looked sensational at the swimming gala.
A thing about me? Rob felt himself blushing, absurdly, and recalling his own frustrations. But why Eddie then?
You were a bit younger, and maybe not my league. Clever lad, student or something. And I suppose that girlie obsession with the mega-macho you have before you know better.
Robs turn, and the quick think it over and decide why not process worked as well for him.
Yes, I had the hots for you too, Janice. But I didnt do much about it for the same reason. Out of my league. Too confident, sure of herself, no chance for younger lads.
So why Karen whats her name? All that time well, thats what I heard.
Hidden depths again, Janice, I suppose. I thought no-one can really be a simple-minded bimbo who cares about nothing but fashion, cosmetics and celebrities.
No hidden depths?
Not a chance. She was.. is a simple-minded bimbo who cares about nothing but fashion, cosmetics and celebrities. And the funny thing is, Janice, that even though I didnt plan it to be that way like you did, I finished up in a business which has taught me a lot about women, and it needed that to happen before I even realised what a lot I had to learn. Day call outs, thats what I do, most of the time, and its almost always women who are there. Even when both of them are there, as they usually are with the pensioners, its the woman I finish up talking to. All ages, shapes and sizes. Women who want to flirt, women who want you to act like a servant, women who want someone to talk to that last one especially. And I like that, the talking. The plumbing stuff is like its a formula, procedures, as if youre following a script. But when you get to the talking, theyll tell you things which they might never tell anyone else. Stuff theyve always wanted to do, travel, kinds of work, whatever, which theyve never had the chance to do. Stuff they just need to tell you about a neighbour, or a friend, or someone whos in their family and they wish wasnt. And I never could talk to Karen, not really talk, you know what I mean?
For a moment, he thought theyd been cut off. Then he heard a kind of click, half tut, half tongue in cheek, and her voice was there again, quieter now.
Yes, Rob. I know exactly what you mean.
Rob sensed that theyd both run out of track, but he knew it would be difficult, almost impossible, just to say nice to talk, Janice. See you. He was still thinking furiously when her voice returned, different again, brassy and coaxing.
Well, Robbo, lad, how do we go on? Shall I do you a freebie? Do you want Miss Prim spanking your bare little bum, or Nurse Naughtiness bed-bathing you a bit at a time, or Pam Policelady taking you to the cells?
Only if I can use my appliances to give your pipes a good seeing-to, Janice. Fair exchange.
She laughed long, loud and infectiously, and he couldnt help himself from joining in; they made a chorus, their laughter meeting and reinforcing itself. Janice stopped suddenly, as if struck by a thought.
Right, listen, Robbo. How about this? A deal. Instead of your Indian take away, Ill make you another special delivery.
Oh, right. Whats that then?
Me. She laughed again. Tell me where you live, young Jason.
He told her.
About forty minutes. Im come round, Robbo, and then well go to the Madras Palace; theyve given me enough trouble this week, its about my turn. Sit down and have a meal right there, and never mind the takeaways. Well talk, eh, Robbo, talk like people are supposed to, about old times, about whats happening now, about whatever. Just talk, yeah? For the time being. Getting to know all over again talking.
Just good friends, eh, Janice?
For the time being, love. For the time being.
Alright, Janice, youre on. You deliver yourself here, Ill deliver you to the Palace. How's that for a night out? Janice and Robbo. To go.
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